JR's works are so striking that they almost materialize in front of you. The first time I found myself in front of the poster-sized white and black photo portraits by this 27 year old artist - whose real name remains unknown - I was speechless, overwhelmed by the power they exhaled: my nose up, the only thing I could see were gigantic eyes that stared at me from a wall, unfolding stories without using words.
It was several years ago at Les Rencontres d'Arles, in France (one of the most important yearly event dedicated to photography) that I got to know JR's art, and since then I have been following it closely.
This young Parisian man with a sense of humor and full of energy, who speaks in public wearing hat and sunglasses to maintain his anonymity, started his artistic career as a graffiti artist - but when he found a camera on the Paris Metro a whole world opened up to him.
He is not only a photographer (www.jr-art.net), I would define him a realistic dreamer.
His technique consists in plastering walls of different cities around the world with gigantic photographs, always black and white. Then, the magic happens: portraits of common people invade public spaces often forgotten, sometimes unnoticed, some others unwanted. JR never asks for permission to do so: he conquers the walls with the strength of his ideas and not with his name, so that his art can be bold and extravagant without any need of explanation. He doesn’t impose his works on the landscapes either, actually: his photos are almost never meant to stay permanently. They are just there to belong to all passers-by until the paper on which they are printed handles the sun, the rain, or vandalism (and street cleaning, too).
JR, Soho, London
In 2006, after the banlieues riots in Paris, he pasted on the Marais's walls, a neighborhood in Paris, the photographs of the young inhabitants of the suburbs, photographed with a 28 mm lens: shooting with this kind of lens means you need to be very close to the people in order to get a portrait, a brave act when you need to deal with gangs. The result: Portrait of a Generation, a series of images that scream at you with violence, and yet with respect: it is clear from the anger that you often find in the eyes of these kids that they are no angels. But you feel a connection with them through their expressions, a humanity - while they look at the camera - that unveils difficult stories. (www.28millimetres.com/index_en.html)
JR, Portrait of a Generation Project
Although his interest in making meaningful street art has been constant throughout his career – in a broader sense - he definitely became a "photographer activist" when in 2007 he started the project Face2Face with a few friends. He photographed Israelis and Palestinians who were doing the same job in 8 different Palestinian and Israeli cities. He then printed the portraits in huge format and pasted them next to each other on both sides of the Security Fence that separates Israel from the West Bank: 20,000 square meters of paper to challenge prejudices. No one believed he could do it, and yet, against all odds, simply by explaining the project to all the people involved and asking them the permission to display them next to a Palestinian/an Israeli, he did it. (www.face2faceproject.com)
JR, Face2Face Project
His search for new places where to display his art never stops, and involves different media and interaction with the surroundings: recently he covered 2,000 square meters of Kibera's slums, in Kenya, pasting on rooftops blown-up photographs of local women for the project Women Are Heroes, a declaration for all women’s dignity. The photographs were printed on vinyl so that this material could prevent the rain from flooding the shelters. The project has been so successful that it has been replicated in different Countries (like Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, Laos, Cambogia e Brasile), placing the images on walls, bridges, even trains’ roofs and stairs (the portraits were divided in frames pasted on each step, so to be able to see them only from afar). JR directed also a movie dedicated to it.
JR, Women are Heroes Project
That is why thinking about JR portraits as mere art is reductive: he succeeded in combining beauty, which is represented by the beautiful faces of common people, surprise and social awareness. What's amazing about JR’s creative projects is his approach to the people involved. He doesn't try to convince them, he doesn’t try to sell his artistic credo, he just goes there and talks to each one of them, explaining what he would like to do. Often, after this process, it’s the inhabitants who approach him asking for more. When he went to Morro da Providencia, one of the most dangerous favelas in Rio de Janeiro, in 2008, to find out more about the murder of three innocent kids that had just been killed by accident – young men in the wrong place at the wrong time – it was the female relatives of the three victims who spoke up and recounted the facts, asking to be photographed and interviewed.
The other genius step he took in the art world, often built on sponsorship of any kind and name-dropping, is figuring out it that it would have helped his message to have no brand behind. As he said at his speech for the TED conference, the organization that awarded him with the 2011 Ted Prize: "No one sponsors my art, so I don't have anyone to please. I have no responsibility, except the one to myself, the project and who's photographed."
The concept he believes in is that art can change the world or, better, it can change the perception of the world and therefore creates discussion so to enable people to change the world.
This message, the constant provocation made by his works placed in difficult areas of the planet in order to create buzz around social topics, is so important to him that it goes behind his art. So much so that lately he decided to use other artists’ works to spread the word: for example, he recently pasted the image of a minaret he didn’t take on a wall in Switzerland, after the Country forbid their construction.
JR, Minaret Photo on a wall in Switzerland
As a winner of the TED Prize, that aims to change the world through big wishes that the TED community will support, he declared to the audience: "I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we'll turn the world...INSIDE OUT." (www.tedprize.org/jr-2011-ted-prize-winner)
That's the name of his new project, which involves the participation of literally everyone who has a story to tell.
The only thing that people will need to do is to upload a black and white portrait they took (self-portrait or a portrait of friends) on the dedicated website Insideoutproject. They will receive it back at home, in their mail, in a poster format (thanks to TED fund of $100,000) that they will be free to hang outside in public and share with the community.
A spin-off of this initiative has been taking place since May at Centre Pompidou in Paris. Until September, in fact, visitors will be able to get their poster in real time thanks to a photo booth.
A way to make people more aware of their power to change the world and its society through a small gesture, a new way of interacting with the people close to us, our neighbors, our friends who we often take for granted, to reach more people.
The images that will come out of this project won’t have the same strength that JR’s art has: it’s almost impossible to move souls as he does, changing the urban environment in such a grand and yet non-invasive way, looking at the world from another point of view.
But it is already great to be able to try, isn’t it?
For more on JR, click here.
And for more artists on Swide, click below:
Written by Elisa Della Barba